Holy Cow!

The Mother of the Dao

In my previous article, “Stability and Instability: Foundational Daoist Cultivation Practices,” I shared some symbolic meanings of trigrams Gen/Moutain ☶ and Zhen/Thunder ☳ along with their associated internal alchemy practices. These cultivation practices are deeply connected with the DaoDeJing’s道德經 Holy Cow. We all know that LaoZi’s DaoDeJing is one of the most well known Daoist classics, but most do not know that the birth of this book is related to a green cow – the legendary Holy Cow, the steady mount of LaoZi老子 as he made his journey to LouGuan 樓關. 

The story begins with ZhiQiDongLai 紫氣東來, a ubiquitous phrase, often used as a prayer or charm in China. It is very, very common for people to post phrase this phrase (or have it carved) above the entryway of their homes or of certain temples as a blessing and for protection. It literally translates as “purple colored Qi comes from the east.”

Purple Qi coming from the east? A holy green cow? Allow me to share the birth story of the DaoDeJing, and explain the metaphysical meanings of these concepts according to Daoist internal alchemy and traditional Qigong practices.

In the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (circa 770-256 BCE), there was a famous astronomer named YinXi 尹喜. One evening, while he was reading the sky, he noted a mass of purple colored Qi accumulating in the east.  He was astonished by this natural phenomenon and immediately recognized it as an omen indicating that a great sage or truly enlightened master was traveling from the eastern direction. He predicted that this master would travel through HanGuGuan 函谷關 and arrive in LouGuan 樓關. He had a strong inner knowing that he was supposed to meet this master, so he traveled to LouGuan and built himself a simple hut and waited for the master’s arrival.  After a short while, an old man with long gray eyebrows and a long gray beard rode towards him.  He was riding on a green colored cow. YinXi immediately recognized that his master. He invited the old man into his hut as his honored guest. The old master, LaoZi, saw that YinXi was seriously committed to his own inner cultivation and agreed to spend some time teaching him. 

After three months, LaoZi decided he was ready to traveling on. YinXi humbly requested that LaoZi write down some teachings so that he would be able to continue his studies in LaoZi’s absence. YinXi knew they would most likely not have a chance to see each other again.  LaoZi consented, extending his stay to write what we now know as the DaoDeJing for his apprentice. YinXi continued to live a hermit’s life in LouGuan, continuing his cultivation practice with the guidance of the DaoDeJing. Years later, after YinXi achieved enlightenment, he wrote the renowned Daoist classic WenShiJing 文始經

From this story, we see that the original purpose of the DaoDeJing was to provide guidance for internal transformation and spiritual cultivation. Through our traditional Qigong practice, we can continuously refine our study and discover advanced cultivation methods hidden within the DaoDeJing.

What about the green cow? There are some cultivation secrets hidden within the story of the green cow that carried LaoZi to LouGuan. I will interpret some of these secrets for you now.

The original Chinese words for the green cow in the story is QingNiu 青牛, a term which does not indicate whether this cow was male or female. Qin means green and Niu means cow, ox, bull, or buffalo. In this story, I prefer to use “cow” as the meaning of Niu, as opposed to ox or bull, for three reasons: 

·      Niu carried LaoZi and then LaoZi wrote the DaoDeJing. The symbolism is here is of Niu as the mother of DaoDeJing.

·      The essence of the DaoDeJing is teach us how to cultivate the quality of Yin 陰, the feminine, the key to return back to the prenatal state and live directly with the Dao. In general, the cow represents this Yin quality – gentleness, giving, open, nurturing others, unconditional love, and so on. 

·      In Yijing (I Ching) symbolism, Cow is the animal symbol for the trigram Kun 坤/Earth ☷, which represents the mother of all things. We can the take the symbolism a step further and interpret this QingNiu as the mother of the Dao.

QingNiu, the green colored cow, plays an important role in Daoist metaphysics. This green colored cow is the symbol for the primordial universe, the Dao, and it is also the bridge between the prenatal state and postnatal life. As I mentioned in my article Stability and Instability, the purpose of the Daoist cultivation is to transform the postnatal body and consciousness back to their prenatal states. The DaoDeJing, brought to fruition by the efforts of QingNiu, is not simply a book on Daoist philosophy. Rather, it is a principal cultivation tool designed to help you return back to the prenatal state. As many of you know, I have long held that my retirement project will be to write my interpretation of the entire DaoDeJing as a complete system of Daoist cultivation.

QingNiu also represents the Cow/Ox in the twelve Chinese zodiac and is inherently related with the Qigong principles and internal cultivation methods of the trigrams Gen/Mountain ☶ and Zhen/Thunder ☳ that I introduced previously. For my next offering, I will share some details about these relationships and the QingNiu Qigong form. Stay tuned!